The State of Gay Cinema
From part of a discussion I’d had on Facebook, with some edits and linked examples:
Current gay cinema presents a thorny issue in terms of value in representation and artistic validity. I think it goes straight to the issue of artistic merit and whether not mere representation is enough to sustain gay audiences. There was a time when films like “Victim” or “The Gay Deceivers” were necessary because it was such a novelty to even see substantive gay characters in any mainstream movie, never mind a “positive” portrayal. I’m sure these films served a purpose as a mirror to the lives of some gay people and ameliorated the sense of invisibility felt by those audiences; but the quality of these films was, with few exceptions, execrable. Truthfully, much as I admire the filmmakers for their enterprise and daring, I’d rather poke my eyes out than sit through 1979’s “Making Love” again (much as I love Sabrina Dunc— uhh, Kate Jackson).
There was some hope in the ’80s and early ’90s when gay film festivals came into prominence and queer-identified filmmakers found venues for their work; much of that work was correlative to a sense of urgency and the air of political activism motivated gay artists to bring their stories to eager audiences. That Out-Loud-and-Proud bravado was invigorating and audiences could mostly overlook the fact that artistically the films were uneven and mired in a repetitive sense of identity politics (some great exceptions were filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Todd Haynes, visionaries who extended their artistic empowerment to exploring the boundaries of the forms themselves. Haynes continues to do this and it’s notable that his films are not exclusively homo-centric in their content, but absolutely queer in their sensibility and artistic bent).
In that sense, one hopes that gay filmmakers and playwrights (and by extension their audiences) have evolved from the era of knee-jerk identity politics and the fact of representation for it own sake. Sadly, I think that all that’s been replaced by something even worse—gay media has been afflicted in the interim by its own set of clichés as the market for gay films, tv shows and plays has been identified and commodified. The programming listings of gay film festivals is for the most part a dismal collection of soft-core muscle-bound campfests, repetitive coming-out stories, and the good old “gay circle of friends” ninety-minute sitcom usually sold as this year’s definitive comedy about the “gay experience” (“…in the tradition of “The Broken Hearts Club” comes a hilarious new comedy…”). I have absolutely nothing against muscle men, hustlers, coming-out stories or gay circles of friends; it’s just that gay entertainment seems strangely frozen in a loop of the same stories, pretty images of beautiful men, and tired campy humor that really hasn’t seemed fresh since “The Boys in the Band” back in 1968. What disturbs me is the artistic complacency and ideological vacuum which seems to have afflicted gay cinema and theater in the last twenty years; it seems that as long as filmmakers and playwrights cover certain themes, hit certain socially-relevant points, show just enough skin, and don’t challenge the audience’s gay-ghetto comfort zones, that their works pass for what’s good for gay audiences (and said audiences are perfectly willing to buy it).
That said, there’s always a place for fluff and mass entertainment and gay audiences should get as much nudity and campy humor as they want; but to be honest, I don’t see a lot of genuine artistic innovation happening in modern gay media, and as much as 1968’s “The Boys in the Band” gets lambasted for being a regressive relic of an un-liberated era, I’ve yet to see writing as trenchant, moving and eloquent in recent gay films and theater shows as in Matt Crowley’s forty-year-old play.
In an ideal world, gay audiences would demand the same quality of writing and filmmaking from the films they see at gay film festivals as in any Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese film; in reality gay audiences seem to accept almost anything of middling or lesser quality as long as two people of the same sex kiss, certain things are spoken and certain body parts are shown. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but how else does one explain “Noah’s Arc”, “Dante’s Cove” or the cinematic oeuvre of David deCoteau?
In mainstream film and television, the message alone is irrelevant to how the words are presented and packaged; certain artistic standards must be met or the work is usually dismissed by critics and/or audiences. The question of representation is mostly irrelevant; it’s either good or it’s not. Certainly, in the larger world, a lot of junk is produced, but a number of films of extraordinary merit and innovation also get made. Gay media and its target audience bypass any such filter, providing a hermetic, Through-the-Looking-Glass world where some genuinely awful and banal things are labeled as safe to consume because something shows two men kissing and enough “YOU GO GIRL!!!”‘s are sprinkled throughout the script. Gay and lesbian people experience extraordinary things and should occasionally create extraordinary cinema. What we’ve gotten these last twenty years can’t, and shouldn’t, be good enough.